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Starting your own business? Things to consider before taking that step

Like most architects, you’ve probably entertained the idea of working independently at some point in your career. The thought is quite understandable, since schools of architecture tend to inculcate concepts of autonomy, design brilliance, prestige, etc. throughout the educational process.

Dreams of fame and designing landmark buildings often dance in our heads, even though we know that for most in the field, that won’t become a reality. Nevertheless, each year, many designers still choose to take the plunge and open their own offices. If you’ve read various articles about the do’s and don’ts of starting up a firm, you may wonder if this article will be different. Well, my purpose in sharing these words is to address the things to consider before deciding to work independently.

Begin by taking a long, hard look at yourself and what you want to accomplish through your practice. This may sound like a no-brainer, but owning your own business is going to require a lot. You need to clarify what you want before investing time—not to mention blood, sweat and tears. Otherwise, disillusionment and dissatisfaction are sure to follow. A friend who operates a psychology practice provided an excellent piece of advice: make a list of questions to ask you and answer them honestly. Here are several suggestions to get you started:

“How do I want to spend my time on a daily basis, and what do I need, expect and want to receive in return?”

“Where do I plan to be professionally, financially, strategically, personally, physically, etc. in 10 years?”

“How does running my own practice fit into that scenario?”

Next, consider your identity. What makes you different? There’s no shortage of brilliant, imaginative and highly qualified design professionals in Boston (and in other areas of the country, for that matter), so how will you become the orange in a field of apples? I had to ask myself that question lots of times before coming up with a credible, comfortable answer.

What are your strengths? From where will you draw your client base? What kinds of projects are not your cup of tea? Think of at least three professional qualities you’d like people to attribute to you before establishing your niche in the marketplace.

Patience is a factor that should not be overlooked. Do you crave instant gratification, or can you wait for success? Are you willing to keep moving forward until your business is profitable? Someone once told me that it often takes five years for a business to become fully functional. So it may take many years of steady work to ensure that your network is strong, you have the expertise that clients seek and you are a confident businessperson. Although some may achieve those goals in a much shorter time period, usually they are exceptions to the rule.

After a detailed self-assessment, I strongly encourage you to enroll in at least one business course. It may not be necessary to return full-time for an MBA, but it’s smart to fortify yourself with additional knowledge about business. I enrolled in a business course for creative professionals at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and it turned out to be a very wise investment of money as well as time. I learned how to develop a business plan, identify client personality types and better understand contracts, marketing, etc. The course provided what I needed to prepare for success as an entrepreneur or a freelance worker.

If you decide not to study, at the very least, read. An excellent resource by Albert W. Rubeling is How to Start and Operate Your Own Design Firm (Second Edition): A Guide for Interior Designers and Architects. I was lucky enough to hear him speak at an AIA conference, and after that I wanted to know more.

If you’ve followed these steps, you now know who you are as a potential businessperson, you’re clear about your brand and you’ve decided how to operate your practice.

The next thing to consider seriously is legal representation. The AIA offers its members LegaLine, a service for small businesses that provides unlimited consultations on contract interpretation and negotiation, addresses ways to improve communications with clients, deals with risk-management issues, and much more, for about $500 per year.

Although every penny counts when you’re starting out, consider how much legal fees may cost if someone sues you over something that could have been prevented if you had had the proper advice in the beginning. Take a look at the AIA Trust website, and judge for yourself.

Speaking of money, what about fees? Finance may not be the most comfortable subject to discuss, but your business cannot survive without it. First, you must acknowledge that you provide a vital service, no different from that of doctors, lawyers, etc. Never undervalue yourself because in doing so, you diminish the importance of your profession, damage the vitality of your business and end up broke! If you’re unable to sustain yourself, how can you manage a practice? Although few architects and designers enter the field expecting to become wealthy, you shouldn’t allow potential clients to haggle with you over your fee structure because you’ll risk losing their respect. Doctors and lawyers rarely bargain with the people they serve. People pay for what they value. The client who tries to argue up front over fees is sending a strong message that shouldn't be overlooked.

Finally, I would encourage you to not only get involved with your local professional chapter but also consider those organizations that may appeal to your clients. Seek out a mentor, and remember to network, network, network. When you think you’ve done enough, network some more! Many great architects and designers start out or continue to be shy or introverted, but in today’s marketplace, if you’re uncomfortable speaking with people, you need to work on your social skills, or keep an updated resume in circulation.

If you’re serious about establishing your own business, remember to do your homework, consider the suggestions in this article, and then go for it. There’s no reason why you can’t build a sustainable business. Best of luck!

Aisha Densmore-Bey Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C is a Boston designer exploring architecture, lighting and furniture design, graphics, branding/identity, and art and film production. She is also currently working on illustrations for an upcoming children’s book series. Visit her at or on Twitter @AishaDBDesigner.

All images by Aisha Densmore-Bey.